Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
The Life Rafts
The Morning after Matapan
29 March 1941
The Fleet was formed in a compact anti-submarine cruising formation - destroyers screening ahead, cruisers on the bow of the battleships. Packed tight in the centre for protection against submarine or aircraft attack was our one aircraft carrier. Her fighter aircraft, already aloft to give some measure of defence against attack by enemy bombers from the Italian mainland.
We were combing the waters for enemy ships or survivors from the night's successful action. It was always an anxious time. The night's chill had not yet gone. The whole Fleet had been at Action Stations all night. For us, in the cruisers, it was the beginning of our second day of tension. Everybody wore that grey look of tiredness, strain and stubble. Our Captain had, as always, made time to shave and alone looked immaculate.
The smell of cooking from the galley was becoming quite unbearable to all hands.
Suddenly, on our port bow, we sighted a line of grey life rafts, wallowing low in the water. Packed tight with weary waving survivors. It's never a nice sight at sea. You may be one of them yourself one day. It means the end of one fight, against a decent honourable foe, and the beginning of a new fight to keep alive. A fight against the elements - against the sea. That's perhaps why sailors the world over get along so well together. They have an endless fight against the sea be they fishermen, or deep sea sailormen.
A destroyer was detached from the small screening force to pick up survivors. The Fleet was manoeuvred clear at high speed. Enemy submarines were a certainty so frequent zig-zags of course were made.
The one destroyer stopped and commenced rescuing survivors by aid of scrambling nets let down her sleek grey sides. Suddenly a penetrating series of short, sharp blasts on a steam siren - the emergency signal for "enemy aircraft in sight". This was followed by the air raid warning imminent signal (a red flag) from the carrier with radar. The cruisers packed in tighter to cover the carrier. The destroyers also eased in to tighten the ring. The lone destroyer with survivors shot ahead at speed leaving survivors in the water. She could not be caught stationary in an air attack.
Then the signal to fire a protective barrage, an umbrella of shell over the air carrier. The sky close above her became black with angry puffs of anti-aircraft shell forming a disturbing blanket of steel fragments. Then hose piping right ahead every available gun of the carrier's eight barrel pom-poms (nick-named Chicago Pianos) pumping out vicious red tracer at diving aircraft. The swift attacks pressed home by German Junkers 88 dive bombers continued. The cracking tempo of the gunfire becoming more marked as fresh attacks developed. Off the carriers port bow, a huge detonation of a 1,000 pound bomb followed by a black burst and rising, towering 100 foot water column. The carrier had been near missed.
An emergency turn 900 to starboard was then executed by the Commander-in-Chief. To bring the wind across, not along the ships' decks, making bomb aiming more difficult. Later "cease firing" was ordered - the barrage over the carrier ceased and the sky turned to a normal colour.
As if by a miracle nobody had been hit. The course of the Fleet was altered away to the South towards Alexandria. The life-rafts and survivors were left in the water. It was too dangerous to risk further recovery.
On the bridge of the British Flagship, the C. in C., also in his battle dress, was in conference with his staff. The fine old sea dog had just dictated a message - a most unusual message in war time. What he said was like this: "Flag Lieutenant sent it on merchant shipping distress wave in plain language".
Such a humane signal showed the calibre of the man who bore all the strain and responsibility of the action and war in his area. He later received a reply on the same frequency from C. in C. Italian fleet.
The Fleet reverted from full action stations and zig-zagged towards Alexandria. The C. in C. left the bridge for his sea cabin below. Those off watch went to breakfast and ate ravenously. The Fleet in action battle dress had time to admire their Admiral.